Critical Issues Before the Democracy


Albert Carnesale, 1988

Albert Carnesale is Academic Dean and Professor of Government in Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. (Currently, Professor Carnesale is Chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles). Today he shares some of his central views on actions which will lower the risks of nuclear war.

Whiteley: Professor Carnesale, in thinking about ways to lower the risks of nuclear war, you’ve identified in your writings five potential ways that a nuclear war could begin. I’d like you to respond to each in turn about what you see the major risks to be. First, the problem of accidental or unauthorized use.

Carnesale: Well often this is dismissed, but one of the things for people to keep in mind, for example, is that while many of our nuclear weapons have electronic locks on them, and they could only be armed if a specific code number is released by the President and put into the weapons, this is not true, for example, of the many thousands of nuclear weapons we have on surface ships or on our ballistic missile submarines. There are no such locks. So it is not inconceivable that a crew of a vessel could decide to use some weapons and could do it. And I have no idea what the lock system is on the Soviet weapons. So you could imagine some initial use, either accidental or in an unauthorized way, then growing out of hand because the other side doesn’t know it was an accident.

Whiteley: A second potential scenario was that of surprise attack. How realistic is that as a potential threat of nuclear war?

Carnesale: Well, I think it’s relatively unrealistic, but it has shaped much of our defense thinking over the years. The American experience at Pearl Harbor leads us to prepare, perhaps unduly and overly, for the event of a surprise attack, but it is largely because we have so over-prepared for it that it is so extremely unlikely.

Whiteley: A third is preemption in time of crisis.

Carnesale: Here’s the difference between that and surprise attack. In a surprise attack, one side or the other has to assume that they’re better off with a nuclear war than without one. It’s a premeditated nuclear war. My colleagues and I find it hard to imagine a world in which that’s plausible, but we can imagine when there is a crisis, and one side or the other believes that war is virtually inevitable, and now the choice appears to the leader to be, not between nuclear war and no nuclear war, but rather between two nuclear wars: one in which the other side goes first, and one in which our side goes first. So while that appears to be a more likely concern, a more likely path to nuclear war than surprise attack, it still requires an overt decision to go to nuclear war. We consider that to be relatively unlikely among the paths.

Whiteley: A fourth is the escalation of a conventional war.

Carnesale: This is the case, for example, imagine there were war in Europe, and imagine also that the West, we and our NATO allies, are losing, which is what virtually everybody’s expectation is would be the case if there really were a conventional war in Europe. We have promised our allies that we’re prepared to escalate that war to nuclear war, rather than allow Europe to go down in defeat at the hands of the Soviets. And so the fact is if there is a conventional war going on in which the Soviet Union and the United States are involved, either one side or the other has to be prepared to lose, or it will escalate to nuclear war. That’s one of the more likely scenarios.

Whiteley: And the fifth and final scenario is a catalytic war. What is that?

Carnesale: Well, this scenario serves to remind us that it’s not only the United States and the Soviet Union that have nuclear weapons. Indeed there are others that have nuclear weapons in significant numbers now (the British, the French, and the Chinese; perhaps the Israelis) and others that are likely to get them soon so we may find ourselves in a situation in which nuclear weapons have been used in time of war in ways that might involve one of the superpowers but not being used by one of the superpowers. And we could imagine that escalating to a major nuclear war. Indeed, I believe that it is likely that the next use of nuclear weapons in war will probably be by a country other than either the United States or the Soviet Union.

Whiteley: Given this as a backdrop, the five ways that a nuclear war might begin, you and your colleagues have identified ten issues - ten actions - which will lower the risks of nuclear war. In presenting those to you one at a time I’d like you to emphasize both the do’s and the don’ts as they relate to each of those actions. The first is to maintain a creditable nuclear deterrent.

Carnesale: Well, as I’ve indicated, we believe that deterrence right now is relatively robust, that it’s hard to imagine a leader deciding it’s a good idea to start a nuclear war. We’d like to keep it that way so let’s maintain a credible nuclear deterrent. As you know under each of these ten principles we listed some things to do and some things not to do. Here one of the do’s is maintain a modern strategic nuclear force; that includes the land-based leg (the intercontinental ballistic missiles), the sea-based leg (the submarine-launched ballistic missiles), and the heavy bombers. A don’t is don’t adopt a policy of no first-use.

Whiteley: This leads to the second issue and that’s obtaining a credible conventional deterrent.

Carnesale: That’s right, and it’s largely for this reason, because we believe that relying as strongly as we do on nuclear weapons is dangerous, and increases the likelihood of nuclear war, we would like to see the United States and its allies obtain a more credible conventional deterrent. This means spending more money, but rather than on nuclear weapons, on conventional weapons in Europe and in a rapid deployment force. And a don’t in this area is don’t build up the kinds of forces that would provoke the Soviet Union, that they would confuse with an offensive force on the part of the West.

Whiteley: A third is enhancing crisis stability. What are the components of crisis stability, and how can it be enhanced?

Carnesale: Well, by crisis stability one usually refers to the incentive to launch a preemptive attack. It’s the scenario we talked about before, where there is a crisis, and one side or the other believes that war is likely, and therefore tries to do as much damage to the other sides’ ability to retaliate as is possible. We think probably the most plausible form of a preemptive attack is one in which you try to destroy the leadership on the other side so they cannot quickly issue the order to retaliate. We believe that’s worth taking seriously. We cannot imagine a fruitful attack by the Soviets on American forces, but if you think of the day of the State of the Union Address, and you think of an attack on the Capitol on that day, much of the American leadership would be wiped out; indeed, with one weapon, not many. So we should take that form of ‘decapitation attack’, as it’s called (taking off the head) seriously, and there are relatively easy things that can be done to make it less likely, like don’t have the Vice President and the President in the same building during times of crises. An important don’t in this area is don’t try to deal with crisis stability by adopting a policy of launching your nuclear weapons on warning of a Soviet attack, to make it impossible for him to destroy them, for in that case indeed you may wind up launching them under a false warning and starting a nuclear war when you really thought you were simply responding to one.

Whiteley: A fourth action would be to reduce the risks of accidents. How are we going about that now, and how can that be strengthened?

Carnesale: Well, one of the things as I indicated is these electronic locks on the thousands of weapons at sea - that would help. Perhaps even more important, we have a large number of short-range nuclear weapons right near the inter-German border. If there were uprisings in Eastern Europe and, for example, if East Germans were trying to flee into West Germany, all of this would be taking place in the vicinity where there are thousands of nuclear weapons. We would remove those short-range weapons from that area. There’s just too great a danger of accident. An example of a don’t in this domain is often in times of crisis when we want to send political signals of resolve to the other side, we put our nuclear forces on alert, thereby relieving many of the safety catches. That’s a bad idea. If you want to send messages to the Russians send telegrams, send letters, send ambassadors; don’t place your forces on nuclear alert. Save that for when you need it for military reasons.

Whiteley: A fifth action is to develop procedures for war termination. What’s the current state-of-the-art, and what will that action do in the nuclear age?

Carnesale: Planning for war termination is a taboo subject. It’s got an interesting history, and the fact is neither the left nor the right like to even talk about it. To the left, planning for war termination implies somehow an acceptability of a limited nuclear war, and to the right, planning for war termination smacks of preparing to surrender. And so neither of them likes to even discuss the subject, but the fact is suppose we find ourselves in a conflict in which two nuclear weapons have been used - or three, or five, or ten. It is not in our interest, or the world’s interest, automatically for that to escalate to the use of thousands or tens of thousands of nuclear weapons.

So it is clearly in our interest to have some plans for terminating a nuclear war should it occur. For example, I want the Soviets under any conditions to be able to issue two messages: one to us that says, "I surrender;" another to their forces which says, "cease-fire." That’s a strong argument, for example, for not destroying their command and control facility, so that should be part of our planning, and communication between us. Similarly, there’s a strong don’t that emerges from this principle: Don’t plan on using nuclear weapons early in a conflict; it will be much harder to bring that conflict to termination than if nuclear weapons had not been used.

Whiteley: What for you are specific types of actions that fall in this category? What constitutes detailed planning for war termination?

Carnesale: Well, the basic place to start is, What information do we need? What will our decision makers know about the status of our forces? When authorization is given to our commanders in the field to use nuclear weapons, how can that authorization be rescinded? How can you issue the equivalent of a cease-fire message and know that it will be obeyed? How can you assure that the other side can do the same thing? Is it plausible to give authorization for only a brief period of time? How are we going to communicate with the submarines in a nuclear war, and what are their orders in that context so they know when they should stop attacking the other side? These things to the best of my knowledge have not been looked at in the detail they should be; similarly, communication with the other side, and communication with our allies. It won’t be any good if only the United States stops using nuclear weapons if the British and French are still using them. The Soviets are not likely to consider that as the end of the nuclear war.

Whiteley: A sixth action is to prevent crises and to manage effectively crises that do develop. What falls under that category?

Carnesale: Well, probably the single most important thing is that our decision makers deserve better preparation than they now get. If you stop to think -imagine when a new administration comes in, if there really were a nuclear crisis, how well-prepared would our leaders be? What does the President usually know about these issues? Virtually nothing. The Vice President may or may not know a little bit. In this administration, for example, the President had not worked in this area, the Vice President had; the Secretary of Defense had not. It’s a remarkable situation where we really are in our Democratic system, a nation that initially is run largely by amateurs. These people deserve better preparation. It is not as if everything is on file at the White House ready for them to use. They should receive the best lessons that can be gleaned from people that have held those positions before, and indeed we’ve started a project along those lines to try to glean that sort of information.

Whiteley: A seventh approach is to invigorate our efforts at non-proliferation. What’s the status of our efforts at non-proliferation? What should we be doing more of?

Carnesale: This is a remarkable area. We have been incredibly fortunate in regard to the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. In the early 1960’s President John Kennedy predicted that by the mid-1970’s there would be 20 to 25 countries with meaningful nuclear arsenals. Most experts in that period, or for that matter ten years ago, would have predicted that there would be at least 20 or 30 or so by this time. Instead, there were five nations with substantial nuclear arsenals; Israel, most experts assume, has some small arsenal; South Africa may have detonated one weapon, may have a few weapons; India conducted one detonation, but probably does not have an arsenal. That’s a long way from 30. So the most important thing to recognize is whether it’s through good fortune, or through good work, this problem has not become nearly as bad as we thought it might, but the potential remains there. If fifty countries decided today that they wanted to have nuclear weapons in ten years they could do it. Probably the thing that drives them most in that direction is fear for their survival as a nation.

So it may be that the most important thing for us to do with regard to nonproliferation is to maintain those security guarantees that we already have. You know often when people talk about proliferation the first countries they think of are Brazil or Argentina, or North Korea, or even South Korea, or Taiwan, or Libya. But imagine if the United States were to withdraw from Europe and say, "All right fellas you’re on your own," and from Japan. How long do you think it would be before those industrialized countries had nuclear weapons? I think it would happen very, very quickly. So the most important thing is to maintain our security guarantees so others don’t feel that they’re on their own, and feel the need for nuclear weapons.

Whiteley: How great a risk do you consider it to be that terrorists might acquire nuclear weapons?

Carnesale: Well, I think it’s substantial, but it is not as threatening to our survival as a species as if nation-states get them and could indeed catalyze a major nuclear war. It is important - the major change that has taken place is that it can no longer be dismissed. Now, when terrorists threaten the use of a nuclear weapon for terrorist purposes you cannot simply dismiss it and say come on, that’s impossible. It remains a difficult task to produce nuclear weapons for terrorist groups, but it’s not beyond their grasp.

Whiteley: The eighth action is to limit misperceptions. What are the major sources of misperceptions, and what can be done to limit them?

Carnesale: Well, to the extent that you believe as we do, that it is most unlikely that anybody would intentionally start a nuclear war because he thinks his country is better off with one than without one, then it follows that the greatest risks of nuclear war come from misperception, miscalculation, misinformation, misunderstanding what the other sides’ intentions are. In that regard we think it is useful to have regular meetings between U.S. and Soviet leaders, and indeed with people that aren’t leaders in the political realm, but do affect the decisionmaking process. And not only at the Summit level, but at the cabinet level, the sub-cabinet level, military leaders, so that there’s a reduced danger that when you see action or troop movement or political action, that it is misperceived as being something that it is not, and is not intended to be.

Another important area of misperception that has to be eliminated is we should not treat nuclear weapons as if they were ordinary weapons, and to a large extent we do now. They’re integrated with our other forces, we have them deployed in the field, we treat them in exercises very much as normal weapons. Our rhetoric often deals with them as if they were as usable as conventional weapons. Nuclear weapons aren’t like other weapons; they are different. We should not believe that they are similar nor should we convey the message that they are similar.

Whiteley: A ninth action is to pursue arms control negotiations. As you know arms control is one of those issues on which many Americans fundamentally disagree. What for you is the potential of arms control negotiations and what actions will lead to agreements you consider effective?

Carnesale: Well first we should start with what we have. I believe that arms control agreements that we have substantially reduce our uncertainties about the potential Soviet threat. We have, for example, the Treaty on Anti-ballistic Missile Systems, the Treaty from 1972 which limits the Soviets to no more than 100 interceptor missiles to intercept incoming American warheads. If we did not have that Treaty, certainly I know what our intelligence estimates were back in the early 1970’s, we thought that by 1980 the Soviets would have 10,000 interceptor missiles. Once we had the agreement that limited them to 100, we knew then that they would have less than 100 and that’s what we could plan on. That’s an enormous difference. Similarly on the offensive weapons side, after the interim agreement, SALT I of 1972, or the SALT II agreements - actually since SALT I, the Soviets have not deployed any additional intercontinental ballistic missiles, none. The Treaty said no more; they haven’t deployed any more. At the time they were deploying about 200 per year. Fifteen years have gone by; that would have been another 3000 instead of the 1400 that they now have. I don’t know that that’s what they would have done, but I do know that no responsible American planner could have assumed that they would have stopped.

So the first thing about arms control agreements is to preserve the value of the agreements we have. We believe they are significant, they are important, it’s wrong to assess the success of arms control solely on whether or not it has stopped the Soviets. Rather you have to ask yourself are we better off with them or without them. What do you think would have happened, or will happen, if we abandon the arms control agreements we now have? So number one is keep what we now have. Number two is to focus on arms control kinds of agreements that concentrate on reducing the risk of nuclear war rather than concentrating solely on numbers and types of weapons. There are arms control agreements, one could imagine, that would for example increase the warning time in case of an attack. It would reduce ambiguity so that if you had more restrictions on testing so that you can’t test more than one missile at a time, or no massive movements of aircraft without prior notification, this would reduce the danger of an accidental or misperceived kind of nuclear war. A don’t in this area is don’t oversell arms control.

Arms control in and of itself cannot solve all problems; it can help, it can make a constructive contribution. Ultimately, of course, it is the political relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union that matters more than any other single thing. Arms control can even make a contribution to that, but arms control by itself cannot eliminate the threat of nuclear war, but it can reduce it.

Whiteley: A tenth and final action for you is to reduce the long-term reliance on nuclear deterrence. How do you go about that?

Carnesale: Well this arose because after my colleagues and I finished this research project we had come up with these other nine principles and forty-nine do’s and don’ts within them. And we asked ourselves, well suppose you did all these things, all forty-nine of our recommendations, suppose they were all adopted, did we believe that if the United States and the Soviet Union relied on the current system of nuclear deterrence, say for the next fifty years, that it is likely that the world would manage to escape a major nuclear war. And our answer was no, that even if you did all these things the chances of miscalculation, misperception, escalation, some way of getting into a major nuclear war in the next fifty years was intolerably great.

So that our final do and don’t - we reversed actually the order of the don’ts - don’t assume that nuclear deterrence will last forever, and do intensify the search for alternatives. We find three areas, three dimensions of that search. One is indeed the technological dimension, and by technological we mean not only new gizmos and new devices as might be imagined through the Strategic Defense Initiative, although defenses could play a part, but also changes in the arsenals. Possibly massive reductions or replacing some of the large nuclear weapons by smaller more accurate nuclear, or perhaps even conventional weapons that could accomplish the same military purposes without as great a threat to mankind.

A second dimension is, for lack of a better name, we called the social dimension. It’s changing attitudes about nuclear weapons, changing the way we think about their role, changing the way we feel about the acceptability of the risk to the species posed by them, not just in the United States but elsewhere as well. And then the third dimension, which we consider the most promising and probably a necessary ingredient is progress along this path, and that’s the political dimension. The British have nuclear weapons; the British if they chose to could destroy every city, certainly on the East Coast of the United States, tonight. We don’t worry about that very much; we don’t lose any sleep about that, not because of British capabilities, not because we could retaliate against them, but because we feel confident that the British have no intention of doing so because of the nature of our relationship with them.

It needn’t be that we make the transformation of the U.S./Soviet relationship so complete that it looks like the British/American relationship. But when you realize what has happened in the Chinese/American relationship over the last twenty years, it is not absurd to imagine over the coming decades that we might make the kind of progress where we’re still competitors, but no longer rely on the threat of mutual annihilation to preserve our security.

Whiteley: Professor Carnesale, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the quest for peace in the nuclear age.